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Full text of "1868 A Strange Christmas Game by Mrs. J. H. Riddell The Broadway Annual"

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391 


% Strange <J|rhtntas dame. 

BT MBS. J. H. BIDDELL. 

% 

When, through the death of a distant relative, I, John Lester, 
succeeded to the Martingdale Estate, there could not have been found 
in the length and breadth of England a happier pair than myself and 
my only sister Clare. 

We were not such utter hypocrites as to affect sorrow for the loss 
of our kinsman, Paul Lester, a man we had never seen, of whom we 
had heard but little, and that little unfavourable, at whose hands we 
had never received a single benefit—who was, in short, as great a 
stranger to ns as the then Prime Minister, the Emperor of Russia, 
or any other human being utterly removed from our extremely humble 
sphere of life. 

His loss was very certainly our gain. His death represented to us, 
not a dreary parting from one long loved and highly honoured, but the 
accession of lands, houses, consideration, wealth, to myself—John 
Lester, Esquire, Martingdale, Bedfordshire: whilom, Jack Lester, 
artist and second-floor lodger at 32, Great Smith Street, Bloomsbury. 

Not that Martingdale was much of an estate as county properties go. 
The Lesters who had succeeded to that domain from time to time during 
the course of a few hundred years, could by no stretch of courtesy have 
been called prudent men. In regard of their posterity they were, 
indeed, scarcely honest, for they parted with manors and farms, with 
common rights and advowsons, in a manner at once so baronial and so 
unbus iness-like, that Martingdale at length in the hands of Jeremy 
Lester, the last resident owner, melted to a mere little dot in the map 
of Bedfordshire. 

Concerning this Jeremy Lester there was a mystery. No man 
could say what had become of him. He was in the oak parlour at 
Martingdale one Christmas-eve, and before the next morning he had 
disappeared—to reappear in the flesh no more. 

Over night, one Mr. Warley, a great friend and boon companion of 
Jeremy’s, had sat playing cards with him until after twelve o’clock 
chimed, then he took leave of his host and rode home under the 
moonlight. After that, no person, as far as could be ascertained, ever 
saw Jeremy Lester alive. 


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His ways of life had not been either the most regular, or the most 
respectable, and it was not until a new year had come in without any 
tidings of his whereabouts reaching the house, that his servants 
became seriously alarmed concerning his absence. 

Then inquiries were set on foot concerning him—inquiries which 
grew more urgent as weeks and months passed by without the 
slightest clue being obtained as to his whereabouts. Rewards were 
offered, advertisements inserted, but still Jeremy made no sign; and so 
in course of time the heir-at-law, Paul Lester, took possession of the 
house, and went down to spend the summer months at Martingdale with 
his rich wife, and her four children by a first husband. Paul Lester 
was a barrister—an over-worked barrister, who, every one supposed 
would be glad enough to leave the bar and settle at Martingdale, where 
his wife’s money and the fortune he had accumulated could not have 
failed to give him a good standing even among the neighbouring 
county families; and perhaps it was with some such intention that he 
went down into Bedfordshire. 

If this were so, however, he speedily changed his mind, for with the 
January snows he returned to London, let off the land surrounding the 
house, shut up the Hall, put in a care-taker, and never troubled 
himself further about his ancestral seat. 

Time went on, and people began to say the house was haunted, 
that Paul Lester had “ seen something,” and so forth—all which stories 
were duly repeated for our benefit, when, forty-one years alter the 
disappearance of Jeremy Lester, Clare and I went down to inspect our 
inheritance. 

I say “ our,” because Clare had stuck bravely to me in poverty— 
grinding poverty, and prosperity was not going to part us now. What 
was mine was hers, and that she knew, God bless her, without my 
needing to tell her so. 

The transition from rigid economy to comparative wealth, was in 
our case the more delightful also, because we had not in the least degree 
anticipated it. We never expected Paul Lester’s shoes to come to us, 
and accordingly it was not upon our consciences that we had ever in 
our dreariest moods wished him dead. 

Had he made a will, no doubt we never should have gone to 
Martingdale, and I, consequently, never written this story; but, luckily 
Sot us, he died intestate, and the Bedfordshire property came to me. 

As for his fortune, he had spent it in travelling, and in giving great 
entertainments at his grand house in Portman Square. Concerning 


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his effects, Mrs. Lester and I came to a very amicable arrangement, and 
she did me the honour of inviting me to call upon her occasionally, and, 
as I heard, spoke of me as a very worthy and presentable yonng man 
“for my station,” which, of coarse, coming from so good an authority, 
was gratifying. Moreover, she asked me if I intended residing at Mar* 
tingdale, and on my replying in the affirmative, hoped I should like it. 

It struck me at the time that there was a certain significance in her 
tone, and when I went down to Martingdale and heard the absurd 
stories which were afloat concerning the house being haunted, I felt 
confident that if Mrs. Lester had hoped much, she feared more. 

People said Mr. Jeremy “ walked ” at Martingdale. He had been 
seen, it was averred, by poachers, by gamekeepers, by children who 
had come to use the park as a near cut to school, by lovers who 
kept their tryst under the elms and beeches. 

As for the care-taker and his wife, the third in residence since 
Jeremy Lester’s disappearance, the man gravely shook his head when 
questioned, while the woman stated that wild horses, or even wealth 
untold, should not draw her into the red bed-room, nor into the oak 
parlour, after dark. 

“ I have heard my mother tell, sir—it was her as followed old Mrs. 
Reynolds, the first care-taker—how there were things went on in those 
self same rooms as might make any Christian’s hair stand on end. Such 
stamping, and swearing, and knocking about of furniture; and then 
tramp, tramp, up tbe great staircase, and along the corridor and so 
into the red bed-room, and then bang, and tramp, tramp again. They 
do say, sir, Mr. Paul Lester met him once, and from that time the oak 
parlour has never been opened. I never was inside it myself.” 

Upon hearing which fact, the first thing I did was to proceed to the 
oak parlour, open the shutters, and let the August sun stream in upon 
the haunted chamber. It was an old-fashioned, plainly furnished 
apartment, with a large table in the centre, a smaller in a recess by 
the fire-place, chairs ranged against the walls, and a dusty moth-eaten 
carpet on the floor. There were dogs on the hearth, broken and rusty; 
there was a brass fender, tarnished and battered; a picture of some 
sea-fight over the mantel-piece, while another work of art about equal in 
merit hung between the windows. Altogether, an utterly prosaic and 
yet not uncheerful apartment, from out of which the ghosts flitted as 
soon as daylight was let into it, and which I proposed, as soon as I 
“felt my feet,” to re-decorate, re-fumish, and convert into a pleasant 
morning-room. I was still under thirty, but I had learned prudence in 


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394 8 Strange Cfjrtetmaa (Same. 

that very good school, Necessity; and it was not my intention to spend 
much money until I ascertained for certain what were the actual revenues 
derivable from the lands still belonging to the Martingdale estates, and 
the charges upon them. In fact, I wanted to know what I was worth 
before committing myself to any great extravagance, and the place 
had for so long a time been neglected, that I experienced some difficulty 
in arriving at the state of my real income. 

But in the meanwhile, Clare and I found great enjoyment in explor¬ 
ing every nook and corner of our domain, in turning over the contents 
of old chests and cupboards, in examining the faces of our ancestors 
looking down on us from the walls, in walking through the neglected 
gardens, full of weeds, overgrown with shruhs and birdweed, where the 
boxwood was eighteen inches high, and the shoots of the rose-trees 
yards long. I have put the place in order since then, there is no 
grass on the paths, there are no trailing brambles over the ground, the 
hedges have been cut and trimmed, and the trees pruned, and the box¬ 
wood clipped; but I often say now-a-days that spite of all my 
improvements, or rather in consequence of them, Martingdale does not 
look one half so pretty as it did in its pristine state of uncivilized 
picturesqueness. 

Although 1 determined not to commence repairing and decorating 
the house till better informed concerning the rental of Martingdale, still 
the Btate of my finances was so far satisfactory that Clare and I decided on 
going abroad and take our long-talked-of holiday before the fine weather 
was past. We could not tell what a year might bring forth, as Clare 
sagely remarked; it was wise to take our pleasure while we could; and 
accordingly, before the end of August arrived we were wandering about 
the continent, loitering at Rouen, visiting the galleries in Paris, and 
talking of extending our one month of enjoyment to three. What 
decided me on this course was the circumstance of our becoming 
acquainted with an English family who intended wintering in Borne. 
We met accidentally, hut discovering we were near neighbours in 
England—in fact, that Mr. Cronson’s property lay close beside Marting¬ 
dale—the slight acquaintance soon ripened into intimacy, and ere long 
we were travelling in company. 

From the first, Clare did not much like this arrangement. There was 
“ a little girl ” in England she wanted me to marry, and Mr. Cronson 
had a daughter who certainly was both handsome and attractive. The 
little girl had not despised John Lester, artist, while Miss Cronson 
indisputably set her cap at John Lester of Martingdale, and would have 


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turned away her pretty face from a poor man’s admiring gaze—all this 
I can see plainly enongh now, bnt I was blind then and should have 
proposed for Marybel—that was her name—before the winter was 
over, had news not suddenly arrived of the illness of Mrs. Cronson, 
senior. In a moment the programme was changed ; our pleasant days 
of foreign travel were at an end. The Cronsons packed up and departed, 
while Clare and I returned more slowly to England, a little out of 
humour, it must be confessed, with each other. 

It was the middle of November when we arrived at Martingdale, and 
found the place anything but romantic or pleasant. The walks were 
wet and sodden, the trees were leafless, there were no flowers save a 
few late pink roses blooming in the garden. 

It had been a wet season, and the place looked miserable. Clare 
would not ask Alice down to keep her company in the winter months, 
as she had intended; and for myself, the Cronsons were still absent 
in Norfolk, where they meant to spend Christmas with old Mrs. 
Cronson, now recovered. 

Altogether, Martingdale seemed dreary enough, and the ghost 
stories we had laughed at while sunshine flooded the rooms, became 
less unreal, when we had nothing but blazing fires and wax candles 
to dispel the gloom. They became more real also when servant after 
servant left us to seek situations elsewhere; when “noises” grew 
freqnent in the house; when we ourselves, Clare and I, with our own 
ears heard the tramp, tramp, the banging and the clattering which 
had been described to us. 

My dear reader, you doubtless are utterly free from superstitious fan* 
cies. You pooh-pooh the existence of ghosts, and “ only wish you could 
find a haunted house in which to spend a night,” which is all very brave 
and praiseworthy, but wait till you are left in a dreary, desolate old 
country mansion, filled with the most unaccountable sounds, without 
a servant, with no one save an old care-taker and his wife, who, living 
at the extremest end of the building, heard nothing of the tramp, 
tramp, bang, bang, going on at all hours of the night. 

At first I imagined the noises were produced by some evil-disposed 
persons, who wished, for purposes of their own, to keep the house 
uninhabited; but by degrees Clare and I came to the conclusion the 
visitation must be supernatural, and Martingdale by consequence 
untenantable. Still being practical people, and unlike our prede¬ 
cessors, not having money to live where and how we liked, we decided 
to watch and see whether we could trace any human influence in the 


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matter. If not, it was agreed we were to pull down the right wing 
of the house and the principal staircase. 

For nights and nights we sat up till two or three o’clock in the 
morning, Clare engaged in needlework, I reading, with a revolver 
lying on the table beside me; bnt nothing, neither sound nor appear- 
anoe rewarded our vigil. 

This confirmed my first idea that the sounds were not supernatural; 
but just to test the matter, I determined on Christmas-eve, the anni¬ 
versary of Mr. Jeremy Lester’s disappearance, to keep watch by 
myself in the red bed-chamber. Even to Clare I never mentioned my 
intention. 

About ten, tired out with our previous vigils, we each retired to 
rest. Somewhat ostentatiously, perhaps, I noisily shut the door of 
my room, and when I opened it half-an-hour afterwards, no mouse 
could have pursued its way along the corridor with greater silence 
and caution than myself. 

Quite in the dark I sat in the red room. For over an hour I 
might as well have been in my grave for anything I could see 
in the apartment; but at the end of that time the moon rose and 
cast strange lights across the floor and upon the wall of the haunted 
chamber. 

Hitherto I had kept my watch opposite the window, now I 
changed my place to a corner near the door, where I was shaded 
from observation by the heavy hangings of the bed, and an antique 
wardrobe. 

Still I sat on, but still no sound broke the silence. I was weary 
with many nights’ watching, and tired of my solitary vigil, I dropped 
at last into a slumber from which I was awakened by hearing the door 
softly opened. 

“John,” said my sister, almost in a whisper; “John, are yon 
here ?” 

“ Yes, Clare,” I answered; “ but what are you doing up at this 
hour?” 

“ Come downstairs,” she replied; “ they are in the oak parlour.” 

I did not need any explanation as to whom she meant, but crept 
downstairs after her, warned by an uplifted hand of the necessity for 
silence and caution. 

By the door—by the open door of the oak parlour, she paused, 
and we both looked in. 

There was the room we left in darkness overnight, with a bright 


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307 

'wood fire Haring on the hearth, candles on the chimney-piece, the 
small table palled oat from its accustomed corner, and two men 
seated beside it, playing at cribbage. 

We could see the face of the younger player; it was that of a 
man of about five-and-twenty, of a man who had lived hard and 
wickedly; who had wasted his substance and his health; who had 
been while in the flesh Jeremy Lester. It would be difficult for me to 
say how I knew this, how in a moment I identified the features of the 
player with those of tho man who had been missing for forty-one 
years—forty-one years that very night. He was dressed in the 
costume of a byegone period; his hair was powdered, and round his 
wrists there were ruffles of lace. 

He looked like one who, having come from some great party, had 
sat down after his return home to play at cards with an intimate 
friend. On his little finger there sparkled a ring, in the front of 
his shirt there gleamed a valuable diamond. There were diamond 
buckles in his shoes, and, according to the fashion of his time, he 
wore knee-breeclies and silk stockings, which showed off advan¬ 
tageously the shape of a remarkably good leg and ankle. 

He sat opposite to the door, but never once lifted his eyes 
to it. His attention seemed concentrated on the cards. 

For a time there was utter silence in the room, broken only by the 
momentous counting of the game. 

In the doorway we stood, holding onr breath, terrified and yet 
fascinated by the scene which was being acted before ns. 

The ashes dropped on the hearth softly and like the snow; we 
could hear the rustle of the cards as they were dealt out and fell 
upon the table; we listened to the count—fifteen-one, fifteen-two, and 
so forth,—but there was no other word spoken till at length the player, 
whose face we could not see, exclaimed, “ I win; the game is mine.” 

Then his opponent took up the cards, sorted them over negligently 
in his hand, put them dose together, and flung the whole pack 
in his guest’s face, exclaiming, “ Cheat; liar; take that.” 

There was a bustle and confusion—a flinging over of chairs, and 
fierce gesticulation, and such a noise of passionate voices mingling, 
that we could not hear a sentence which was uttered. 

All at once, however, Jeremy Lester strode out of the room in 
so great a hurry that he almost touched us where we stood; out of the 
room, and tramp, tramp up the staircase to the red room, whence ho 
descended in a few minutes with a couple of rapiers under bis arm. 


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8 Strange Cfjristmas ©ante* 

When he re-entered the room he gave, as it seemed to ns, the other 
man his choice of the weapons, and then he flung open the window, 
and after ceremoniously giving place for hia opponent to pass oat 
first, he walked forth into the night-air, Clare and I following. 

We went through the garden and down a narrow winding walk to 
a smooth piece of turf sheltered from the north by a plantation of young 
fir-trees. It was a bright moonlight night by thin time, and we could 
distinctly see Jeremy Lester measuring off the ground. 

“ When you say 4 three,’ ” he said at last to the man whose back 
was still towards us. They had drawn lots for the ground, and the lot 
had fallen against Mr. Lester. He stood thus with thp moonbeams 
f allin g full upon him, and a handsomer fellow I would never desire to 
behold. 

44 One,” began the other; 44 two,” and before our kinsman had the 
slightest suspicion of his design, he was upon him, and his rapier through 
Jeremy Lester’s breast. At the sight of that cowardly treachery, Clare 
screamed aloud. In a moment the combatants had disappeared, the 
moon was obscured behind a cloud, and we were standing in the 
shadow of the fir-plantation, shivering with cold and terror. 

But we knew at last what had become of the late owner of Marting- 
dale, that he had fallen, not in fair fight, but foully murdered by a false 
friend. 

When late on Christmas morning I awoke, it was to see a white 
world, to behold the ground, and trees, and shrubs all laden and 
covered with snow. There was snow everywhere, such snow as no 
person could remember having fallen for forty-one years. 

44 It was on just such a Christmas as *hi« that Mr. Jeremy dis¬ 
appeared,” remarked the old sexton to my sister who had insisted on 
dragging me through the snow to church, whereupon Clare fainted 
away and was carried into the vestry, where I made a full confession 
to the Vicar of all we had beheld the previous night. 

At first that worthy individual rather inclined to treat the matter 
lightly, but when, a fortnight after, the snow melted away and the 
fir-plantation came to be examined, he confessed there might be 
more things in heaven and earth than his limited philosophy had 
dreamed of. 

In a little clear space just within the plantation, Jeremy Lester’s 
body was found. We knew it by the ring and the diamond buckles, 
and the sparkling breast-pin; and Mr. Cronson, who in his capacity as 


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& Strange Christmas ®ame. 399 

magistrate came over to inspect these relics, was visibly perturbed at 
my narrative. 

“ Pray, Mr. Lester, did you in your dream see the face of—of the 
gentleman—your kinsman’s opponent ?” 

“ No,” I answered, “ he sat and stood with his back to us all the 
time.” 

“ There is nothing more, of course, to be done in the matter,” 
observed Mr. Cronson. 

“Nothing,” I replied; and there the affair would doubtless have termi¬ 
nated, but that a few days afterwards when we were dining at Cronson 
Park, Clare all of a sudden dropped the glass of water she was carrying 
to her lips, and exclaiming, “ Look, John, there he is!” rose from her 
seat, and with a face as white as the table-cloth, pointed to a portrait 
hanging on the wall. 

“ I saw him for an instant when he turned his head towards the 
door as Jeremy Lester left it,” she explained; “ that is he.” 

Of what followed after this identification I have only the vaguest 
recollection. Servants rushed hither and thither; Mrs. Cronson 
dropped off her chair into hysterics; the young ladies gathered round 
their mamma; Mr. Cronson, trembling like one in an ague fit, at¬ 
tempted Borne kind of an explanation, while Clare kept praying to be 
taken away—only to be taken away. 

I took her away, not merely from Cronsop Park but from Martingdale. 
Before we left the latter place, however, I had an interview with Mr. 
Cronson, who said the portrait Clare had identified was that of his 
wife’s father, the last person who saw Jeremy Lester alive. 

“He is an old man now,” finished Mr. Cronson, “a man of over 
eighty, who has confessed everything to me. You won’t bring further 
sorrow and disgrace upon us by making this matter public ?” 

I promised him I would keep silence, but the story gradually oozed 
out, and the Cronsons left the country. 

My sister never returned to Martingdale; she xnarrried and is living 
in London. Though I assure her there are no strange noises now in 
my house, she will not visit Bedfordshire, where the “ little girl ” 
she wanted me so long ago to “ think of seriously,” is now my wife and 
the mother of my children. 


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